Appearances are almost always deceptive. You need to look at a person very closely, with full attention and sometimes for a long time, to see the truth hidden below the surface. And a person’s truth is not found so much as it is revealed.
In a congregation I served several years ago, there was a collection of coffee cups for use during fellowship time following worship. Folks who attended regularly had cups with their names on them hanging on pegs near the coffee pot. There were also unlabeled cups for visitors. The invitation to everyone was simple: grab a cup and enjoy the coffee and conversation, but check the cup before you use it. Cups that had been unused for a while might be dusty or contain small insect carcasses, and occasionally one might have coffee stains from a previous use. The cups were meant to be used, but they might need to be cleaned to make them ready.
We’re like that. We’re here to be used and enjoyed by God, and sometimes we need to be cleaned up, dusted off, emptied of old things we’ve collected, washed clean of stains. Sometimes the process looks like confession and forgiveness, sometimes like spiritual rebirth. In today’s gospel reading (Luke 14:1, 7-14), it looks like humbling ourselves (v. 11).
Humility isn’t valued much in the public sphere today, and it seems it’s not taught much in the private sphere, either, not by precept or example. Some people believe being humble means beating ourselves up, convincing ourselves we’re of little or no value, without meaning. Some believe being humble means denying or hiding the talents God gave us. But none of those things represent true humility. Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself; it means thinking of yourself less. It means getting yourself out of the center of your life and letting God alone be there at your center.
Humility is the gift that’s often available when you move from the first half of life to the second, no matter how old you are when you make the shift. The business of the first half of life is establishing an identity – climbing some ladder of success, accumulating property and possessions, establishing a reputation, achieving big and lasting things, and performing well according to some external expectations that we’ve internalized. In the second half of life, no matter when the second half begins, most of what we’ve accumulated is stripped away, or we consciously let go of those things, or they naturally fall away, and we stop climbing upward in life and start climbing downward, discovering opportunities to give up who we set out to be and become who life is making us, who we really are at our deepest level.
The process of discovering and expressing our true, God-given nature, or of becoming free of all that hides it, is what humility is really about. It’s the process of emptying our cup of what soils it, cleansing our earthen vessel that holds fullness of life, polishing away the stains that obscure the divine in each of us. If we want to gain abundant life, Jesus said, we’ve got to lay down our life, our psuche in the Greek, all the acquired layers of personality that have defined us, so our original life can be revealed, unmasked for all the world to see.
For most of us, that’s a slow process, usually completed only on our deathbed. However, no matter when it’s completed, it has things to teach us about life and how to live it best. They’re things Bronnie Ware learned by working as a palliative caregiver for the dying. She listened to people who were having everything stripped away from them as they lived closer to death. She learned some things about what’s important in life, and she published them ten years ago in a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. Here are the things her patients told her about what they regretted most.
The first and most common of all their regrets was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius says to his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man” (act I, scene iii, lines 78-81). Humility strips away the false self that stands between ourself and others, it allows us to be who God has made us to be, and it lets our relationships with others become more authentic.
Their second regret was, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” “To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” the Teacher wrote, and then went on to say, “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (Eccles. 3:1, 13). Pogo put it this way, “Important work like sittin’ around fishin’ remains to be done.” Don’t work so hard, humility teaches; the future of the world and the reign of God don’t depend on you, you’re not that important. Do what you must, do it as well as you can, and pause often to celebrate the blessings of life.
Regret number three was, “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” The first and greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt. 22:30). Love God with everything you have and everything you are, with everything you think and everything you feel. And Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” Expressing your feelings, humility teaches, is how you get more fully in touch with the best and most beautiful things in the world, in life, and it’s how you express your love for God.
Their fourth regret was, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Friendship is just another word for love. Friends, if we risk allowing them, learn to see through the masks we present to the world and value us for who we really are, with all our faults and failures, maybe because of our faults and failures. And friends help us grow in humility, help us see and reveal to others the persons God is creating us to be. Humility teaches us our need for true friends if we are to be made whole and real.
And the fifth most common regret of the dying: “I wish I had let myself be happier.” “For every minute you are angry,” Emerson wrote, “you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” Happiness is not something we can create, win, earn, own, or consume, and it doesn’t depend upon external circumstances. Happiness is something we allow ourselves to experience in living every moment with love, grace, and gratitude. No one or no thing can make us happy. Humility teaches that we are already enough for true happiness; all we need to do is strip away the layers of illusion, self-deception, and the expectations of others, and live fully the life God has already given us.
The mythical giant Antaeus was invincible in battle as long as he stayed in contact with his mother, Earth. Hercules was able to defeat him by raising his feet off the ground, breaking his contact with his source of strength. Humility brings us down to earth and reconnects us with the source of our strength; it seats us at a lower place at the table, closer to what nourishes and sustains us; it is the process by which the shepherd leads us to still waters and green pastures, where we will dwell in God’s house forever.